Monday, March 30, 2015

India: Jaipur

There hasn’t been much of a time schedule to guide our travels. Besides visa restrictions we both agreed that we would be flexible about the time spent in each location, allowing us to stay or go as we please. However, there were a couple festivals or holidays which we wanted to experience in a certain country. Holi in India was one of those holidays. After Jared’s (always thorough) research, he decided that Jaipur would be the place to celebrate Holi. Holi is meant to celebrate the coming of spring and love and happiness in general. The celebration consists of people throwing colored powder at… everyone. At your neighbor, at your fellow consumer, at a random passerby, during Holi everyone is fair game. Even the cows get ‘colored.’ In preparation, we bought our own bags of colored powder, cheap white clothes and Jared wanted water guns because water + colored powder = colored goo. The morning of Holi, we almost didn’t get changed into our white clothes fast enough, as the hostel we were at got the colored powder out at 9 am (our hostels in Jaipur is a separate post). We decided to go to an organized, ticketed Holi celebration at a nicer hotel. This decision was based on research and local advice that revealed that in some parts of the city, locals would often just drink and could become more physical (especially with women). That was not a scene we were seeking and we do not regret our decision as we still had a great time! We were at a field next to a hotel where they had set up food booths, a stage with a DJ, several security guards and they provided colored powder. We arrived around 10 or 11 in the morning and stayed until about 2. During that time, we danced, threw powder and celebrated with locals and westerners alike. Jared was really getting into the spirit and he was even dancing some (dancing is a pastime in which he does not typically partake). In fact, he was so unaware of his own skills that as he danced, a small hole in his pants steadily grew in size until the seam on one pant leg was completely ripped from the crotch to about his knee. This became a problem as he could not walk, let alone dance, without the whole of Holi seeing what lie under the hole. It got to the point that the pant leg began to more closely resemble a leg tunic rather than complete pant. We weren’t ready to leave yet so we asked security if we could go into the hotel to see about buying some new pants. A very nice guy walked us (well...Jared waddled) to the gift shop. During that short commute, we encountered several older Chinese tourists who were not partaking in the festivities but thought we (especially Jared), covered in color, were quite fascinating. We stopped for pictures and proceeded to the gift shop. Instead of new pants the lady at the shop gave us a needle and some thread. Those of you who know me and my awesome domestic skills know that I am an awesome seamstress (haha). As I began to start my work, our fans from the lobby made their way into the shop and continued taking pictures. The tourists taking pictures of the tourists sewing up a giant pant hole was enough fodder for laughter to last me awhile but, it got even better. Jared, employing all sorts of stereotypes, assumed that one of the older ladies knew how to sew. Through gestures he asked if one of them would be able to sew up his pants. They were more than willing to help and there may even be a video of the interaction somewhere on Chinese YouTube. They were so kind and easy going, we got some pictures with them as well and a memory was made for everyone involved. After that (with Jared's pants passably sufficient) we spent some more time enjoying the festivities. When we were completely covered in color and adequately exhausted, we went back to our place for food and rest. We spent the rest of Holi at our hostel relaxing and trying to plan to rest of our time in India.
Pre-Holi in our white clothes

I tried to get a shot while he was throwing powder in the air

Completely covered

The ladies as they helped sew up Jared's pants

She saved the day!

Jared with a new friend

We also had some time to do some sightseeing in Jaipur as well. We visited the Ahmer Fort, City Palace, Jantar Mantar and Hawa Mahal. Ahmer Fort consisted of a larger palace area than the palace we visited outside Udaipur, and it was in better condition, with remnants of stained glass, paint, and restored gardens. The complex was huge and it took several hours to see all of it. This fort is also home to the world’s largest cannon on wheels. That’s right. Largest cannon on wheels. It seemed like something that should be on the roadside of Route 66. It is a cool fort and all but really only because it is a fort. There didn’t seem to be anything particularly special about it.
The road up to the palace is so steep that they use elephants to transport tourists to the top. We are too hardcore for that though, we walked.

On the steps leading to the main entrance of the gate (our guide had a propensity to take crooked pictures)

In an alcove flanking either side of the main entrance

The entryways were beautifully designed

A garden courtyard

Taking the 'tunnel' from the palace to the fort

The largest cannon on wheels!

Jantar Mantar is a complex of tools and structures designed for astronomy and astrology. The complex was interesting and definitely different from anything else that we have seen. However, with minimal knowledge of astronomy it all appeared scientifically foreign and it was difficult to understand the purpose of everything, even with an awesome skit-like audio guide.

A sun dial
The royal family still lives in part of the City Palace so we were only able to tour part of it and picture taking was restricted. Hawa Mahal is part of the palace complex that was intended for the royal women and has hundreds of tiny windows which allow the women to look out on the town but remain hidden. It was the most unique building we visited while in Jaipur and very revealing of the cultural heritage of India.
Hawa Mahal- that's a lot o' windows

Now you see me, oh wait, no you don't because I'm hiding.

We left Jaipur early in the morning and took a good chunk of the day to travel to Delhi. Don’t worry, we didn’t get Delhi belly- the next post is safe for consumption.


Saturday, March 28, 2015

India: Udaipur

I would like to start this post with a revision to the Mumbai post. Apparently my tone was, shall we say, whiney in my description of the train. It really wasn’t that bad, I think when I wrote the post I was still remembering standing (because there were no seats) on a platform with beggars and stray dogs and a stale stench of urine hanging in the air. That was every train station in India though so there was nothing that made this one particularly bad. And, no one likes being hungry but this hunger was not deserving of the anger with which I wrote about it. Really, I just wanted to use my ‘m’ alliteration for Mumbai, muy and mal.

On to Udaipur: Our flight was, interesting. Well, not the flight itself so much as the pre-flight experience. The Mumbai airport has a set up where you can electronically check in at a kiosk and then stand in line to check your bag (if you have a bag to check). Alternatively, if you cannot check in at the kiosk you have to stand in a separate check in line and then stand in the check your bag line. This concept presented as difficult for some passengers. The confusion was rampant. That combined with the fact that lines are just loose suggestions to most Indians can make any socially rule-centered Westerner a little loco. Once we finally made it to the front of the line, we got our boarding passes and then proceeded to the typical security line. No one told us that part of the security process is a mandatory tag for your hand baggage. As such, we had to go back to the check in area, get tags and then get back in the security line. Men and women have separate security lines which usually means that I am through the line quicker than Jared. As I waited for him on the other side I saw him get stopped by the security men. What could this be? Swiss. Army. Knife. Doh. We had forgotten to ensure the contraption was not in the carry-on bag. Cut to the staff using walkie talkies and calling our names over the loud speakers because we were the only passengers not ready for boarding. Well, that was exciting. Although we made the flight (if by the skin of our teeth), our last minute checked bag did not make the flight. Luckily, it did make it on the same flight the following day and it was delivered to our hotel.

Udaipur is an enchanting city. It is considered the Venice of India and although it does not come close to equaling the number of canals, it does have some winding back streets and alleys that could easily result in a lost and confused tourist.  Luckily, we managed just fine and did not get lost. The first day, we visited the city palace, the Monsoon Palace (one of the locations used for filming James Bond’s Octupussy) and we went to a cultural dance show. It was raining that night and we ran to a restaurant to take cover and eat. We happened to meet a fellow Canadian traveler there. He was in his ‘60’s and traveling solo. He had some interesting stories and we passed some hours talking to him about his life of travel.
The view of our city from the roof of our hostel.

Stained glass in the city palace (I had to wear Jared's shirt because I was cold!)

View of the mountains from the Monsoon Palace

Hill palace

But first, let me take a selfie.

The second day we booked a car through our hotel and went to Kumbal Garh Fort and Ranakpur, a newly restored Jain temple. This was a momentous day. This was the day that I decided I want a fort. Not one made of sheets but a fort as in a fortress. Basically, it is a castle but I think fort sounds cooler and more impenetrable. This particular fort is surrounded by the second longest wall in the world (second to the great wall) and has several different temples on the grounds. A few people still live within the walls but not in or near the actual fort. This was one of my favorite places we have been so far. The Jain temple is intricately detailed with extensive carvings and statues. Some of my favorite details were the designs on the ceiling and all of the pillars which were each unique in their design.
Wow, that's a long wall.

It's a fort!

Set the timer and run!

The picture is off centered but this is an Ohm symbol carved into the ceiling.

One of the pillars with etched detailing. Each one is different and unique.

Amongst the pillars.

Our final day in Udaipur we spent walking around and taking pictures. We left on yet another train in the early afternoon to arrive in Jaipur that night.

This is the lake palace. It was a retreat for royalty, was another filming site for Octopussy and is now a hotel and not open to the public.
Next stop, Jaipur and the hilarious story of our Holi Celebration experience.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

India: Mumbai

Our train to Mumbai was muy mal. That is Spanish for very bad. Not only was it an hour late to arrive to our station (no one wants to sit at a train station for an hour) but it then accumulated another 3 hours of lateness making our total travel time 14 hours instead of 10 hours. For realz. That is 14 hours without adequate food, since we were warned off the train food by some fellow Americans, we have been packing our own provisions for train travel. We were anticipating being able to eat breakfast, off the train, at like 6 am, so we did not pack very much food. We were both pretty hungry when we finally made it to our hostel. I guess it could have been a lot worse, we could have had a loud, stinky neighbor. We could have derailed or been delayed even longer. Maybe it wasn't muy mal, just mal.

After breakfast we started our tour of the city and headed to South Mumbai to walk around the old buildings and to catch the ferry to the Elephanta Caves. Historians are not sure when or by whom these caves were constructed, but they believe it was between the 3rd and 8th centuries. The caves are Hindu shrines and are primarily dedicated to the god Shiva. It is an hour ferry ride and then a trek to get to the top, but the caves (especially the main, most well-preserved cave) are quite impressive.

At the entrance to the main cave.

Remember how I mentioned Indians taking pictures with us? Here is one of those pictures. This was actually more like a photo shoot because there were four of them and we took a number of pictures with various combinations of people and arrangements.

The Trimurti sculpture which shows the three aspects of Shiva. Scale not shown but this is almost 20 feet tall. 

Jared in front of the famous Taj Mahal hotel.

The Gateway of India, built in 1911 to commemorate the visit of King George V to India. It is also the gate through which the British soldiers left when India gained its independence.
After the caves, we did a little shopping and then headed back to the hostel. We made a reservation for a cooking class on-line for the next day. Finally, we could learn the secret to the deliciousness. However, when we woke and inquired at our front desk about getting a taxi, we learned that in order to get to that class it would take about an hour and a half to go about 15 miles. This did not jive with our day plans so we cancelled that class and went with a suggestion of the hotel staff. This cooking class was through a company called Mystical Mumbai which was started by a PhD student from the slums. All of the tour guides also are from the slums and are attending university. It sounded like a different, unexpected experience. And, it was. We met the owner of the company and he informed us that we would be meeting up with another tourist at the house of one of the guides. We would be learning about cooking Indian food from the guide's family. His Aunt, Uncle, Mom, Dad, Grandparents and miscellaneous nieces and nephews were there and were all kind and inquisitive. We got to watch the women prepare the meal from scratch and were able to ask questions about ingredients and methods. It was a really great experience which not only allowed us to learn about cooking Indian food but also about Indian family life.

Preparation of some of the food. Lots of colors, fresh spices and herbs. It was a fun, delicious day.
After our bellies were full with our freshly prepared meal we went to Mount Mary's Basilica and then to the Shree Siddhivinayak Temple. This temple is described as the most important Hindu temple in Mumbai, but is not a "tourist" temple and it was overwhelming to enter the area as vendors were everywhere yelling at us to come take off our shoes and to buy offerings for the temple. We had to go through security and were not allowed to take pictures or video. We finally made it to the official ‘take-off-your-shoes’ stand and did so. When we entered the temple, which was built for Ganesh, we were again overwhelmed with lines and people. It was by far the most active Hindu temple we had been in and we felt very privileged to be observers in their holy place. In the rush of the crowd and in response to the directions of the temple volunteers, we found ourselves at the front of the altar and a Hindu holy man gave us both a bindi (the mark on the forehead) and a pile of flowers and some sort of cookie. We weren't really sure what to do with either. Even after looking around to see what other people were doing, we couldn't quite figure it out. I won't mention what happened to these items. We witnessed several different acts of worship and we are uncertain as to the meaning behind them all but it was a great experience, nonetheless. That evening we did some shopping and then found a nice little pub with locally brewed beer. It was a spontaneous, well-spent day and our last in Mumbai.

Mount Mary's Basilica. The first altar was built here in 1570, it has been torn down and rebuilt several times but is still considered one of the oldest churches in Mumbai. The light blue on the walls and in the paintings is very beautiful.

Us with our bindis. It is not allowed to take pictures of the temple inside or outside so we don't have any of those.
From Mumbai we flew to Udaipur, the Venice of India!

Monday, March 23, 2015

India: Goa

We had a mission upon arrival to Goa. Mission Ship our Shtuff. We have become quite wary of tuk-tuk drivers who, in an effort to get you in the tuk-tuk, say “Oh yes, I know where that is” and then quote you a cheap price. After this cheap price quote one of three things will happen: 1. They actually don’t know where it is and stop to ask around for several minutes then ask you to pay more because it is farther away than they thought 2. They know where it is but as part of their cheap price they try to get you to stop at a shop ‘just to look’ so they can get some kickback 3. They know where it is and take you there with no fuss. Unfortunately, we have been jaded to the point that we prefer to walk if we can. Given Jared’s love of G-Maps and our awesome unlimited international data plan, that is usually something that can happen pretty easily. However, we have also learned that G-Maps is not always up to date. It cannot always be trusted. That’s right, G-Maps is fallible. In this case, DHL was, in fact, nowhere near where G-Maps thought it was. We didn’t discover that until the next day though because we eventually gave up the search. We had not booked a room in advance so we sat in a cafĂ© with some lunch and a much needed Kingfisher and found us a room. And what a room it was! It was a little piece of hotel heaven, just a mile from the beach with a pool, an on-site restaurant, cable and wi-fi. We spent that night in the pool and filling our bellies with delicious, delicious Indian food. The next day, we took a taxi for a tour of Old Goa where there are several old churches.

Our little swimmin' hole

The Basilica of Bom Jesus (that means baby Jesus) It is the oldest church in Goa.

The Chapel of St. Catherine. This is a restored small little chapel and the inner sanctuary is all brick

Se Cathedral. This crazy leaning tree complement the single bell tower well.
Then, of course, we spent the night in the pool, eating food and listening to a one man karaoke band! He had some great renditions of Western favorites which with which we happily sang along. We had to leave Goa the next night so the following day we decided to check out the beach. It was such a lovely beach. Nice and quiet with very few tourists. The tourists that were there were Russian. This population was so common, in fact that the signs at the little huts behind us were all in Russian. It was an interesting change from the typical tourist population. As for the beach and swimming, the waves were bigger than in Thailand and made any kind of water experience more like a wave pool and less like a float pool. But we had a nice time relaxing for a few hours before leaving on our night train. This awkward-after check out-before train departure-time was spent in our hotel room, as they let us pay for a half day so we could still shower and eat before heading on to Mumbai.

Relaxing on the Russian beach in Goa.

Sarong flowing in the wind, waves crashing at my feet and sand squishing between my toes (I made Jared take an 'artsy' picture).

Leaving our Goa retreat was tough but we had good ole Bombay beckoning us from the North so, we had to move on.

India: Ft. Kochi

Luckily, I began to feel better just in time for our flight to India. Our flight had a layover in Kuala Lumpur so we now have two entry and two exit Malaysia stamps in our passports. We spent like 8 hours at the airport, which had a strikingly obvious lack of seating. We found a little lounge though with bunk beds and a private bathroom and shower, so that helped relieve some of the discomfort of the layover. Sometimes, you got to get a little fancy to maintain sanity. But, we arrived in Fort Kochi and after finishing up our visa process we made it to the hostel. I had booked us a room without AC. It was hot. We made it through the night but switched rooms for the rest of our stay. The first day we walked around the town and saw the famous Chinese fishing nets which are still in use by local fishermen, an old church and a courtyard. Following lunch, we hired a tuk-tuk to take us to the not-so-touristy Hill Palace museum. This was a former palace (obv) and although it was in some disrepair (we both lamented at the insane coolness possibility) it had some former crown jewels and other memorabilia from the Royal family of the area. It would have gone REALLY well with the Dutch Palace museum we visited the following day as the former had lots of stuff and lacked description and the latter had lots of description and lacked stuff. But it was at the first museum that we encountered large groups of school children who appeared FASCINATED by us. All of the boys wanted to shake Jared’s hand and the girls swarmed around me and repeated “Hello, what is your name?” “How are you?” over and over. It was so sweet that they wanted to practice their English! We had like two minutes of celebrity status. Since then, we have been asked on several different occasions to be in pictures with different groups of (usually younger) Indians. Sometimes they ask Jared to step out of the picture so it is just me- I can’t help but wonder what the captions are for these pics. Also while in Kochi, we visited India’s oldest and still active synagogue. We have now visited a place of worship for: Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Jainism.
The Chinese fishing nets have a tilting mechanism which allows the fishermen to lower and raise the nets.

We found this beautiful painted tree along Marina Drive in Fort Kochi.

This is St. Francis Church, it was built in 1503 and is the oldest European church in India.
I also went to a yoga class during our stay in Fort Kochi. It was supposed to last 2 hours but instead lasted 3 hours. Jared was a little bit worried, to say the least. But, on our way to eat we saw this cutie with a bindi.
Another, unique to Kochi experience was our tour of the Kerala backwaters (Kerala is the name of the state or area in which Kochi is located). We were on a long board boat, not unlike the one we took to visit Maya beach. However, this boat was propelled, by our guide, with a long bamboo pole. We spent the day on the waters and had lunch at a house where we also watched a demonstration of rope making. It was pretty and relaxing.

Palm trees lined the banks of the river.

Our boat driver with his bamboo pole.

A type of dam along the banks. We passed several houses as well, some of which had signs requesting that passerbys do not take pictures.
From Kochi we took the train to Goa. And Goa we did, to some beaches and churches! But, before Goa-ing we had some of this weird time that we have experienced before. It is the time after check-out and before a night train. We often offer to pay for a half day or an hourly price so we have access to a shower before we embark on a 15 hour train ride. Our wonderful hostel manager, Anup, not only gave us a place to keep our bags but allowed us to use his own shower before we got on the train! It is little things like that that make a place stand out.